Perfect Sound Forever

Jackie McLean And 
The Blue Note Revolution: 1959 - 1967

Covers courtesy of Blue Note

by Graham Wood (May 2001)

Blue Note Records, the definition of jazz hipster chic, has traded on that image for so long now that it has successfully obscured its founder Alfred Lion's original mission statement to be the jazz musicians label of choice. In the era of unsurpassed exploitation of musicians, especially African American ones, Blue Note was different. It gave artists greater studio time, increased input into the production side, better pay and more time to select musicians for recordings.

This is the main reason why alto saxophonist Jackie McLean jumped at the chance to sign with them. He had endured a string of musically dissatisfying but financially necessary studio sessions since being banned from gigging in New York because of his narcotics convictions. He had no choice but to accept these abysmally paid dates, despite his admitted indifference to them. If Alfred Lion hadn't offered him an exclusive recording contract, Jackie McLean might have disappeared altogether. Instead, he went on to record one of the most remarkable series of albums in the jazz canon. This is a contribution to jazz which is all to often ignored by the history books. It deserves to be placed on a pedestal alongside the contemporary output of any of his peers. It offers a microcosm of the development and struggles of jazz in the 1960s, and ultimately an affirmation of the rejection of conservatism.

1959 - 1961

 Jackie McLean opened his Blue Note career at a crossroads musically and personally. Having lived the classic jazz lifestyle to the hilt, he was in danger of becoming the next great bebop casualty before waking up to his predicament. His debut Blue Note LP New Soil was intended as an explicit rejection of his personal past. Musically, the album was a sharper version of his previous hard bop style. He had played with Mingus on and off for a couple of years but had never really transferred his lessons with the bassist over to his own recordings. On New Soil, the first signs of change are detectable. The drummer on the album is Pete La Roca, one of the more unusual hard bop sticksmen of the time. The others are hard bop stalwarts Donald Byrd, Paul Chambers and Walter Davis Jr. The music is mostly straight ahead blues, but "Minor Apprehension" has a breakneck tempo and unison alto / trumpet attack sounds like a cross between Bird and Dizzy on "Hot House" and the Coleman / Cherry statements on the early Ornette LP's. This LP also introduced Jackie's generosity in letting his sidemen contribute compositions to his albums. Davis is composer of three of the five tunes, unfortunately without distinction. Soon however, this policy would pay off.

Next to appear was Swing Swang Swinging, which offered a disappointing set of standards. This album is definitely the runt of Jackie's Blue Note litter, despite an early appearance from future Coltrane bassist Jimmy Garrison. Capuchin Swing was a little better, with a couple of excellent McLean originals in "Francisco" and "On The Lion," but the band is hard bop by numbers and the album is ultimately solid without real excitement. Thankfully, this was to be the only real dip in Jackie's output for the next seven years, as classic after classic poured out of Van Gelder Studios in Hackensack, NJ. Jackies Bag was the first of these, although some of it had been recorded much earlier. Featuring such hard bop mavericks as Tina Brooks, Sonny Clark and Philly Joe Jones across its six selections, the album is the first to show Jackie anticipating his new guise. The two most startling tracks are "Appointment In Ghana" and "Quadrangle," with the significantly reduced chord sequences showing a definite Ornette influence. Jackie, so long the possessor of his own sound adds his own style to the mix here. His tone is noticeably sharper, his phrasing more idiosyncratic in terms of pacing and selection of notes. The Bird influence is significantly diminished, later to be almost irrelevant.

After Jackie's Bag showed a glimpse of the future, it is surprising that Jackie next chose to make a pure blues album. Thankfully the result, Bluesnik, is a fantastic record of diamond hard riffing and soloing. Starring alongside Jackie are La Roca again on drums and the Jekyll & Hyde trumpet of Freddie Hubbard. LaRoca's complex patterns keep the music off center enough to make the ordinary material more exotic and Hubbard, never a favorite of mine, plays with vigor in his attempts to match McLean. Jackie is in superb form here, perhaps eclipsed only by his later album Right Now for pure solo power. The title track is the undoubted highlight, with La Roca's seething cymbals pacing Jackie's deep voiced solo, which has more in common with Dexter Gordon's tenor sound than an alto saxophonist. Indeed, Jackie grew up trying to translate the tenor of Lester Young on alto, the main explanation for the source his unmistakably hard tone. This LP's by far the greatest of Jackie's early Blue Note period and a classic of the genre.

 Bluesnik served its purpose as the culmination of Jackies traditional hard bop phase. With his next record, A Fickle Sonance, he began to work the influence of free jazz into the music more completely. With the previous experiments on Jackies Bag there was a nod in it's direction, but the title track of this latest album was a more explicit show of solidarity with the new thing. I wouldn't rate it as one of the stronger albums, but it proved a dry run for what would be the real coming out album for the all new Jackie McLean, the one which marked the beginning of his true greatness.

1962 - 1963

 Let Freedom Ring is one of the landmark albums of the period, for Jackie, for jazz and for Blue Note Records itself. For Jackie, it was the culmination of years of searching for his real personality as a musician. His early Blue Note LP's had sold reasonably well and his confidence had returned. with it came a determination to make the break from the past he had pondered so much ever since Mingus first lambasted his Parker mimicry. For jazz, it was a fantastic boost to the impoverished musicians of the new jazz to see such an established mainstream player admit that the younger generation had inspired him to change. From now on, Jackie played almost exclusively with avant garde musicians. Gone were stalwarts like Donald Byrd, Kenny Drew and Art Taylor to be replaced by unknown talents deserving of greater exposure. For Blue Note Records, it helped the label to escape what was becoming a rut of endless jam session albums, organ combos and mediocre soul jazz. Soon it would be recording Andrew Hill, Sam Rivers, Larry Young, Eric Dolphy, Joe Henderson and other new stars. Cecil Taylor recorded two of his greatest albums for Blue Note and even Ornette Coleman was recruited. The success of Let Freedom Ring was all Alfred Lion needed to be persuaded.

The overall significance of the album not withstanding, the music it contained was also celebratory. Three magnificent McLean originals and a tender tribute to Bud Powell are the backdrop for Jackie's most joyous playing ever. His solo on "Melody For Melonae" is bursting with found sounds, harmonics and gutteral growls. The dialogue with Billy Higgins on drums is key to the sound. Without another horn to spar with, the drummer steps into the limelight with his chattering snare and cymbals as idiosyncratic as ever. The music is not free jazz by any means, but the attitude sure is.

Arriving in Boston in early 1963 to meet his pick up band for the week, Jackie came across a youthful fan that introduced the musicians, and himself as the drummer. 'You?' was all Jackie could say to his new sideman. Tony Williams was that youth, and it was the start of a year long project which would ultimately bring Jackie to the musical pinnacle of his career. Williams returned to New York with Jackie, who proceeded to hire relative unknowns Grachan Moncur III (trombone) and Bobby Hutcherson (vibes) for his new project. A lineup of alto, trombone, vibes, bass and drums promised a lot and delivered more. It proved to be the most unique sounding combo in jazz at the time, both compositionally and sonically.

The generous habit of allowing his sidemen to contribute compositions to the repertoire had long been a policy of Jackie's. With Moncur having a backlog of material to add to the new McLean compositions, the band immediately had a great choice of tunes. For their first recording, two tunes from each composer were used. The album was to become One Step Beyond, the McLean album which I would choose to take to a desert island if allowed only one.

With Eddie Khan on bass alongside the core quartet, the band produced a sound alien to jazz. It is avant garde but not really free, vaguely modal in structure and laced with an unsettling atmosphere. Williams operates as the tempo controller, accelerating and grinding to a halt, coasting then exploding. Jackie had previously recorded with Pete La Roca who had a similar ability to tinker with the beat, but Williams was inventing a new kind of jazz drumming on the spot. On vibes, Hutcherson played shimmering counterpoint, often silent for long spaces before dropping hanging chords over the melody. Moncur' main contribution came with his writing and arrangements, not his solo prowess. He kept his spots short and spare, leaving plenty of room for the leader. McLean had modified his approach from that of Let Freedom Ring. The use of the upper register is intact, but the lines have become even more fragmented. His cut up solos were unlike any other saxophonist in jazz had ever played, totally at odds with the prevailing Coltrane style blizzard of notes. On the faster cuts "Saturday & Sunday" and "Blue Rondo" the difference is clearest. On the slower Moncur compositions "Frankenstein" and "Ghost Town," there is a greater emphasis on ensemble playing. The empathy between the musicians is on par with that of the classic Coltrane quartet or Miles Davis mid '60's quintet (featuring Williams of course).

 Realizing that this was indeed a special combination he had put together, Jackie was quickly back in the studio. Unfortunately Williams was unavailable so was replaced by Roy Haynes with Larry Ridley also in on bass. Moncur penned three of the four cuts on what was to become Destination Out, a fitting successor to One Step Beyond. As this album served as my introduction to Jackies music, this blew me away when I first heard it. It focuses on the darker side of the group, unlike One Step Beyond's schizophrenic program. The opener, "Love & Hate," is somber and poetic with Moncur taking a fine solo. Jackie is quite subdued, abandoning the abrasive elements of his sound. Haynes hardly even touches his drums. Williams is missed quite noticeably on "Kahlil The Prophet" and "Esoteric." Haynes is a great drummer, but he is not quite on the level of understanding with the group in general and Hutcherson especially. Sadly, Williams had been offered the Miles Davis gig and Jackie had graciously let him go with no ill will.

Fortunately, Williams was around long enough to return for one last record with the band, this one onder the leadership of Moncur and titled Evolution. Although Jackie is a sideman on this LP, it is impossible to ignore it when discussing his work. The three albums recorded with Moncur / Hutcherson are as perfect a trilogy as you will hear. Moncur is the composer of all four cuts but again he is a minor soloist. Added to the band for a one off appearance is Lee Morgan, the greatest young hard bop trumpeter of the period. Morgan was frustrated by his inability to escape his more commercial style and jumped at the chance to play on the LP. His contributions are suitably fired up, very dissimilar to his 'sidewinder' style. Overall the album is a riot of wild tempos and intense solos. The beatless dirge which constitutes the title track showcases a very odd sounding solo from Jackie, who definitely sounds out of tune. "Air Raid" is a classic Williams / McLean / Hutcherson dialogue and "The Coaster" turns into a McLean / Morgan face off. Morgan was especially proud of this LP, but his failure to continue playing avant garde jazz was a symptom of the pressure felt by musicians to stay in work. The new thing was fast becoming the music of umemployment.

1964 - 1967

 After this two year period of perpetual motion, the career of Jackie McLean was struck down in 1964 when he was sentenced to prison after losing an appeal over some old drug offences. After six months inside, he emerged to continue his recording career, but with a very different approach to his pre-prison recordings. The routine violence that constituted prison life would stay with him and the subsequently harsh music on his next few albums reflects that. What came to be known as his 'acid period' manifested itself in three strident LP's: Right Now, It's Time & Action. The key addition to Jackie's new band was trumpeter Charles Tolliver, who picked up the baton left by Moncur.

Tolliver did not actually play on Right Now, which acts as a belated successor to Let Freedom Ring. McLean is the sole horn as on that LP and he takes the spotlight fully to charge through an emotionally turbulent set of great power. The Tolliver penned title track is a tense McLean slow burner over the snaking piano of Larry Willis. Willis himself contributed the aching "Poor Eric," with McLean paying beautiful but gut wrenching respects at the passing of his only genuine rival for the crown of best altoist in jazz. If any album should be played to demonstrate the naked power of Jackie McLean as a soloist, this is it. Other albums are better overall, but Jackie never blew harder or with more emotion than here. The other two albums of this period, It's Time and Action are possibly the least essential of his later Blue Note output. Action sees Bobby Hutcherson make his return, while It's Time has Herbie Hancock on form and Tolliver contributes some fine originals and plays hard but they cannot match Jackie's brutal solos. Unlike the greatest of the Blue Note dates, Jackie sounds detached from his band and the music just isn't as memorable as a result. The harsh 'acidic' tone of Jackie's playing would next lend itself to a great one off jazz meeting of minds.

 Ornette Coleman was not known to play sideman to anybody but gladly made an exception when he appeared on Jackie's album New And Old Gospel. By now Jackie had a new band together, with a core of pianist Lamont Johnson and bassist Scotty Holt. Billy Higgins returned on drums to complete the band for this date. Ornette chose to play trumpet on the album and contributed the great church stomp of the title track. By now, Jackie was playing almost totally free, and the centerpiece of the record is a suite called "Lifeline," which recalled Don Cherry's Complete Communion LP a little. Ornette plays in his usual idiosyncratic way but he cannot transform himself into the Cherry role of foil to Jackie. The LP is a great listen despite this, and the joyous Old Gospel is one of the great lost Coleman classics.

Jackie brought the curtain down on his tenure at Blue Note with two similar albums, 'Bout Soul and Demons Dance. Woody Shaw had joined up on trumpet, for me the great lost trumpeter of 1960s jazz. Grachan Moncur returned for 'Bout Soul, but his tenure with Archie Shepp had transformed his style into a much more forceful one. The title track matched Moncur's avant blues with the poetry of Barbara Simmons while the rest of the album featured some great free blowing from Shaw on some originals by Holt and Johnson. Again Jackie was happy to present the talents of his band as much as himself. Demons Dance was the parting shot, with Shaw again brilliant and Jack DeJohnette coming as close to anyone to matching the Tony Williams role on One Step Beyond. Jackie himself sounded a little tired on the album though, and this was to be his last real statement for many years. Blue Note had passed from the hands of its founder Alfred Lion into the control of Liberty Records. Soon, all the great progressive jazz artists who had flocked to Blue Note were being dropped by the label. Jackie was not offered a new contract and all of a sudden it was over.

Post-Blue Note, Jackie retreated from the jazz scene into the realms of education. His concern for the development of young talent had been an integral part of his greatness so his new professorial post in New England was perfect for him. Although he still plays now and then into the 21st century (and is back with Blue Note Records again), it is his 1960's work which continues to define his career. I have not even mentioned the many great unreleased 1960's sessions which saw light of day eventually, or his brilliant sideman gigs on albums like Sonny Clark's Cool Struttin' and Jack Wilson's Easterly Winds. But I don't need to. Haven't I said enough already?

Also see a more personal look at the music of Jackie McLean

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